Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 2, 2019

Butting in to Bhaskar Sunkara’s debate with a Trotskyist

Filed under: Jacobin,social democracy — louisproyect @ 9:26 pm

Debates between DSA’ers and Trotskyists are few and far between, especially today when Trotskyist groups are gnats compared to the elephantine DSA. Once upon a time, long before the Sandernista left reconstituted itself as the DSA, these debates were more frequent because the relationship of forces was different. The SWP, which is a micro-gnat today, was once the largest group on the left and anxious to defend its ideas against all comers. Although I hate to see even a single penny go to this grotesque cult today, Pathfinder’s collection of 3 debates titled “The Lesser Evil?: Debates on the Democratic Party and Independent Working-Class Politics” is only sixteen dollars and would be useful reading today. It contains Peter Camejo’s legendary standoff with DSA founding father Michael Harrington in 1976, cult leader Jack Barnes’s with Stanley Aronowitz in 1965, and George Breitman’s with Carl Haessler in 1959. While the DSA did not exist in 1965 or 1959, social democracy did.

Aronowitz was a leader along with James Weinstein, the late publisher of “In These Times”, of the Committee for Independent Political Action that was a forerunner of the DSA strategy. A NLR article on the Rainbow Coalition will indicate that this strategy has been around for a long time:

In 1965, a group of white socialists in New York City created the Committee for Independent Political Action, which attempted to advance an anti-Vietnam war agenda within the Democratic Party primary elections. Radical trade unionist Stanley Aronowitz viewed the strategy as a means for ‘an independent political movement’ to attack the Democratic Party, as well as to ‘evolve into a third party.’ Revolutionaries who entered the Democratic Party could ‘put reform Democrats who are radicals programmatically on the spot’, while educating a mass audience.

As for Haessler, he was 72 at the time he debated George Breitman and had probably shifted to the right, keeping pace with other SP members who were thoroughgoing anti-Communists in 1959. To his credit, he went to prison for opposing WWI and was closer to Eugene V. Debs than he was to Victor Berger, the sewer socialist he dubbed an “old fogey”.

While Bhaskar Sunkara has largely been identified with Michael Harrington and Karl Kautsky, I would see him much more as in the tradition of Stanley Aronowitz who was one of CUNY’s best-known Marxist professors. He helped to get the Socialist Scholars Conference going in the 1960s and restarted it in 1981 as a DSA-backed enterprise.

Like Sunkara, Aronowitz was a very nimble defender of social democratic politics and had momentum on his side in the 1970s when a number of Democratic Party elected officials joined the DSA, especially African-Americans. The disgusting McCarthyite KeyWiki website provides a list of DSA elected officials from 1990 that includes 19 men and women including Congressmen Ron Dellums and Major Owens, NYC Mayor David Dinkins, and Ruth Messinger, the Manhattan Borough President. It was not uncommon for leftists to take jobs with these elected officials. For example, Lars Lih worked for Ron Dellums as Ron Ashford did for Major Owens. Ashford was a member of CISPES in New York, where I got to know him, as well as a member of the Communist Workers Party that made the tragic mistake of getting into an armed confrontation with the KKK in North Carolina.

More recently, there have been two debates between leading DSAers and people coming from a Trotskyist tradition. Back in April, there was a conference in NYC co-sponsored by Jacobin and HM that included a debate between Charles Post and Eric Blanc. Unfortunately, there was no video recording but you can read my capsule summary here.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been watching a debate between Bhaskar Sunkara and James Peterson, the editor of Socialist Revolution that can be seen above. Peterson, like Post, repeats the standard arguments for independent class action that they learned in the Trotskyist movement. Post was a former member of the SWP and Peterson belongs to the American section of the IMT, a British Trotskyist International led by Alan Woods that never gained nearly as high a profile as its rival Socialist Alternative. Probably, the decision of Peterson’s group to call itself the International Marxist Tendency has quite a bit to do with its modest presence.

Actually, I was far more interested in what Sunkara had to say since he has never really replied to his critics on the left, least of all a skunk like me. When he was 16 years old (or something like that), he was on the Marxism list but never promoted social democratic politics except in his farewell address to the subscribers:

I’ll be in the DSA, in the cesspool of the Democratic Party, in the mainstream unions, where the working people are, until you comrades can prove me wrong and build a viable alternative for working people and then I’ll apologize and happily join you.

Unlike Eric Blanc, Sunkara is not much of a theorist. I’ll be getting around to his “Socialist Manifesto” but as far as I know, most of his statements are rather anodyne op-ed type pieces in the bourgeois press, including a regular column in the Guardian where he offers up this kind of wisdom:

I’ve been wrong about this once before, but I’d bet that whoever the Democratic nominee is in 2020, they’ll be able to defeat Trump. That’s all the more reason to go with the most viable progressive candidate – someone committed to change and with the knowledge and willingness to do battle with the big business interests that want to hear none of it.

At the very least, this acknowledges that Sanders is a “progressive candidate” rather than the boilerplate description of him as a socialist, a label that is getting harder and harder to justify given how he has clothed himself in New Deal garments.

Early on in the debate, Peterson defends the distinction between socialism and communism that in reality never appeared in Marx’s writings, as Michael Lebowitz points out. For Peterson (and many other Marxists, including Lenin—I would add), socialism is identified with the dictatorship of the proletariat—a state in which the workers rule. After socialism has become a world system and completed the task of wiping out all traces of capitalist property relations, money will no longer be needed and the state will begin to dissolve until communism is achieved, a purely classless society that will have a lot in common with utopian literature of the past. Frankly, I’ll be glad if we even get to those conditions that Trotskyists used to call a workers state with bureaucratic deformations given the descent into hell of the past decade or so.

Sunkara views this distinction between socialism and communism as baseless. There will always be a need for a state, in his view. He puts it this way. “Let’s say that you want to build a bridge and I want to build a tunnel. How do we mediate that without a state?” To start off, I remain mystified by any attempts by the left to grapple with the problem of future socialist societies whether it is the boneheaded Fully Automatic Luxury Communism or the thoughtful attempt by Sam Gindin to say “What socialism will look like”.

I try to imagine why a state would be necessary to decide for example whether a tunnel or a bridge should be built. The implication of Sunkara’s example is that markets would solve these problems rather than planning. Keep in mind that this is what Vivek Chibber, the editor of Catalyst magazine, has already said:

What is more challenging is the issue of economic planning. We have to start with the observation that the expectation of a centrally planned economy simply replacing the market has no empirical foundation. We can want planning to work, but we have no evidence that it can. Every attempt to put it in place for more than short durations has met with failure.

In a society of millions of people, billions if you conceive of communism as a world system, planning will be essential if for no other reason to utilize resources intelligently. Scientific planning, in fact, is the only way to avoid the Sixth Extinction whatever the Jacobin/Catalyst hustlers believe. If scientists getting together to figure out how to preserve old-growth forests while still supplying the wood needed for chairs and desks is the same thing as cops arresting environmentalists sitting in to protect redwood trees, then the differences between social democrats and Marxists is deeper than anybody could have ever imagined.

Moving right along, Sunkara and Peterson wrangled over the question of “bourgeois democracy”. At 18:00 in the video, Sunkara expresses disagreement with the idea that democracy was a gain of bourgeois revolutions, as put forward by Peterson who was simply expressing the idea scattered throughout Kautsky’s writings. He wonders why the bourgeoisie should get credit for the very thing they violently opposed. He says that from 1848, the bourgeoisie opposed “democratization”. Of course, there is a problem in the way he formulated this. Marxists don’t use a term like “democratization” that is class neutral. That is why they refer to bourgeois democracy. For example, the American civil war produced bourgeois democracy. It ended chattel slavery and allowed Blacks to become free wage laborers. Even if Jim Crow forced them into second-class citizenship, they still had the right to move wherever they wanted, including New York and Chicago where they could get jobs making Ford automobiles and vote for the Democratic Party that was largely responsible for Jim Crow. This is a contradiction that largely escaped Sunkara, whose grasp of dialectics is about as deep as mine is of particle physics.

The final 30 minutes or so of their debate revolves around the Democratic Party that Sunkara referred to as a cesspool above. In accord with Eric Blanc’s article on “the dirty break”, he explains that it is okay to “use” the primary ballot to raise all sorts of hell as a socialist candidate more likely to get air time than we used to when we ran people like Peter Camejo for President. If this was all there was to the tactic, I’d take the Jacobin publishing empire-builder a bit more seriously. However, these campaigns by Sanders, A. O-C, et al are not about socialist propaganda. They are serious attempts to get elected and seen so by Jacobin and the DSA, so much so that A. O-C told CNN that she “look[s] forward to… us rallying behind all Democratic nominees, including the governor, to make sure that he wins in November.” That was Andrew Cuomo, the politician who represents everything that is filthy about the Democratic Party. It is no different than Sanders urging a vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. My guess is that whoever runs against Trump next year, Sanders will certainly endorse whoever the Democrats nominate, even Joe Biden. That will be a contradiction for Bhaskar Sunkara to unravel—speaking dialectically.

 

8 Comments »

  1. “Even if Jim Crow forced them into second-class citizenship, they still had the right to move wherever they wanted, including New York and Chicago where they could get jobs making Ford automobiles and vote for the Democratic Party that was largely responsible for Jim Crow.”

    If I may quibble over a minor aspect of this post, this is a bit reductionist and gives an impression I doubt you intended. In fact, it was difficult for African Americans to leave their homes in the South and go anywhere until the 20th Century, and, even then, it was a challenging enterprise. White Southerners used violence to keep blacks in place as sharecroppers for as long as they could. They did have the right to move wherever they wanted, but it was difficult to exercise until the flood gates of the Great Migration, and, even then, it took subsequent decades for them to empower themselves.

    Comment by Richard Estes — July 3, 2019 @ 5:12 am

  2. I keep saying this, but until AOC and Sanders take meaningful steps toward a mass political formation that is a democratic membership organization, it will be impossible to take them seriously as social democrats, let alone as socialists. If that could be injected as a virus into the Democratic Party, well and good. Of course it can’t be–and to all appearances, they are not trying, though I believe Sanders has paid lip service to the idea of a mass party–which he is not organizing.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — July 3, 2019 @ 1:06 pm

  3. Unlike AOC and Bernie, who can’t even oppose trumps attacks on venezuela, racist and reformist victor Berger was thrown out of congress for opposing WWI…and defending the Russian revolution. He also represented an independent working class party which actively opposed WWI and paid a stiff price for it whatever it’s other shortcomings may have been.

    P.s. Dan labotz has an excellent response to chibar via the new politics website.

    Comment by Roy rollin — July 3, 2019 @ 1:41 pm

  4. Jacobin’s attachment to Sanders is going to end badly for them whether Sanders loses or more so, if he wins. The first drone strike ordered by Sanders will delegitimize their entire socialist premise, and in way, open the door to more ‘anti interventionist’ Trumps. It’s fine to say we should vote for Sanders, but the total lack of critical analysis of Sanders’ very obvious weaknesses bodes very poorly for the future of Jacobin and DSA.

    Comment by Bill — July 4, 2019 @ 12:00 am

  5. But the phony got socialist who got elected in Seattle gets your full support? Where’s the consistency?

    Comment by Carlin — July 4, 2019 @ 8:11 am

  6. “American civil war produced bourgeois democracy.” Does that mean that capitalist relations of social reproduction already dominated in the US at that time and there was a class of bourgeoisie, and therefore a bourgeois democracy?

    Comment by Nadim Mahjoub — July 4, 2019 @ 11:39 am

  7. Once again Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal deprive me of some simple uncomplicated and earned sectarian fun mocking Jacobin and Socialism 19. I was so looking forward to this and now along come Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal *seriously* arguing that the whole thing is a CIA front. This means I have to support Socialism 19 against Norton and Blumenthal. Annoying.

    Comment by John Gamey — July 7, 2019 @ 6:29 pm

  8. Louis, if I might continue with Bay Area realities (which have to be pretty real): Ron Dellums was originally in the CP fold.

    Comment by Jeff Rubard — July 8, 2019 @ 12:56 am


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